A Bridge Too Far

This is part three (Miracle at the Bridge) of my review of The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points That Saved The World, by Chris Stewart and Ted Stewart.

How to Trip Over Your Own Tipping Point

Chapter Three brings us to Rome, circa 300 AD, and the emperor Constantine’s decision to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The authors’ horror of large states, big government, and theocracy miraculously fall away as they trip over themselves to convince the reader that this was a wonderful thing. Chapter Three is, in fact, a Pandora’s Box of junk history as the authors zoom back and forth in time and race all over the world in a frantic attempt to prove that everything good in the Western tradition comes from Christianity. It’s such a mess I began to wonder if I was wasting my time engaging with it. Then I remembered that Ted Stewart is a federal judge, Chris Stewart is a U.S. congressman, and their book made The New York Times bestseller list. So yes, it’s worthwhile.

OK, so let’s go down the list, and see how well Stewart & Stewart defend their points.

Human Rights and Democracy

Stewart & Stewart tell us that David Brog, author of something called In Defense of Faith, “show(s) that the Judeo-Christian values were instrumental in compelling individuals to respect and even to fight for the rights of others, even those outside of their own family, group, or people.” Believe it or not, this is their entire argument! And since they can’t be bothered to give any evidence for these claims in their own book, I don’t need to contradict them.

All warmed up, they continue, “Another of the most important foundations for Western political thought is the belief that certain rights are derived from God, not from man.” Which rights these are, and where they can be found in the Bible, is not stated. But they do tell us it was all articulated by a group of “Early Christian philosophers.” Along with these anonymous philosophers is an unnamed contemporary scholar who “shows” that the “nature of the covenant relationship between God and His people is the foundation for the covenant relationship that is known as constitutionalism.” That scholar is Jacob Neusner. Perhaps he is only named in the footnotes because Google tells me he once said Christians should “embrace Judaism.” Not that it matters, because 7 Miracles ends up refuting the very argument it wants to champion!

“The examples of the Greek city-states and the Roman Republic, with their various experiments in democracy, were vitally important to those European political philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who pronounced the philosophical foundations for self-government. Many of the ideas and institutions of these classical giants were adopted by the Europeans, giving them a significant jump start toward modern civilization.”

Amazing. Simply amazing.

Peace

The authors are eager to dispute the charge that Christianity has inspired “war, atrocities, bloodshed,” and genocide. To do this, they quote several Christian historians who assert that Christianity is wonderful. Then, a few pages later, we get this:

“Far too many wars have been waged in the name of Christianity, or a favored sect of Christianity, and millions of innocents have died as a result of those wars.”

OK, so much for that!

Reason and Logic

In chapter two, we were told these are the precious cultural legacy of classical Greece. In Chapter three, the “West” is more logical than the rest of the world because “Christian theologians have devoted centuries to reasoning about what God may have really meant by various passages in scripture.”

Centuries of reasoning to understand what God may have meant. Wow.

Science

Again, the authors serve up lots of talk about how free the thinking was in various Christian institutions, but give no examples. Nor do they mention Galileo’s heresy trial in the 1630’s, or today’s Christian war against the concept of evolution. But they do admit to this:

“For too long, the Christian church attempted to keep the people under its control by withholding the holy scriptures from them. In the name of Christianity, some scientific and technological advances have been blocked.”

And so they admit to the static, authoritarian, and theocratic nature of medieval and renaissance Christianity.

Capitalism

Since America is a capitalist nation, it is vitally important for Stewart & Stewart to prove that God invented capitalism! In so doing they sink to a new low in junk history. According to this book, “Capitalism was a system that evolved distinctly and uniquely in the West, its beginnings traced to the large Christian monasteries that sprang up throughout much of Europe.”

I’ve never encountered this idea in any of the history I’ve studied in my life, and the authors don’t even quote a Christian propagandist as a source. They just make the assertion and move on.

The End of Slavery

Finally, here’s the piece de la resistance in self-delusion. Did the emperor Constantine outlaw slavery when he made the Roman Empire Christian? No. But Christianity was still the key to ending slavery because “Later Christians would act as emissaries for peace, fighting against the horrors of slavery and for the rights of the “Indians” found in the New World.” … I’m repeating myself, I know, but…wow.

It Sucks To Be Poor

What little time we do spend in 3rd century Rome is mostly with a fictitious Christian family. They are so miserably poor that they need to send the children out into the trash heaps to scavenge bits of food and cloth. And yet, because they are Christian, they are also honest, kind, humble, brave, and ever thankful for the religion that, the authors claim, is the cause of the terrible abuse and discrimination they suffer at the hands of their neighbors.

After Constantine comes to power we get a heart warming scene of triumph because this family is finally free – free! – to paint a cross on their front door. Whether or not they are also free from their terrible poverty – the poverty the authors used to indict Pagan Rome for heartlessness and injustice – that is left unsaid.

The Miracle At The Bridge

So what is the miracle at the heart of this chapter? Is it Constantine’s claim to have seen a burning cross in the sky, along with the words, “in this sign, you will conquer”? Actually, no. The authors, aware there is no proof of this supernatural event, are careful to say he “reportedly” saw the cross. But they need a miracle for each chapter, so they find something else. And it is grim as well as violent.

Before Constantine became the undisputed Caesar of the whole empire, he had to defeat his rival Maxentius in a battle before the gates of Rome. Maxentius had heard an omen of his own, and he grew careless and over-confident. He chose to meet Constantine’s forces at a spot where his own army could not easily retreat. So when he was out-generaled by Constantine, his retreat turned into a route. He, along with many of his own men, where crowded off a narrow bridge, and they drowned in the river below. That’s the miracle. Ugh.

I still have 4 miracles to go, but I have a feeling the authors have pretty much shot their bolt with this one. If so, maybe I’ll just lump the remaining chapters into one short recap.

To be continued!

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Miracle Number Two

The Greeks Save “The West”

This is part two in my chapter by chapter review of Chris Stewart and Ted Stewart’s book, The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points that Save the World.

480 BC, Western Persia

Chapter Two opens with a drumbeat of doom as the Stewarts (who are not brothers, FYI) tell us: “The world is a warring place. It is a jarring, unforgiving, and violent place, with power and riches going mainly to the strong.” Then the curtain rises on another fabulous Cecil B. DeMille set. This time it is the enormous traveling throne room of Xerxes, master of the Persian Empire, and according to Stewart & Stewart:

“The spoils of war around him represented the Persians’ unbelievable wealth and power: gold from the Phoenicians, emeralds from the mines in the Azbek highlands, pearls from the mouth of the Nile, red sandalwood from the jungles of eastern India – the display of wealth dazzled like the sun.”

palace

This image from the movie “One Night With The King,” is pretty close to the scene in the book.

As in the palace of Sennacherib, two strong men are facing off. This time one is Demaratus, “He was a king. He was a Spartan. He was a warrior and a leader.”

The other is Xerxes, who was “ incredibly intimidating – dark and tall and strong…”

spartan king copy Xerxes

Historically accurate reconstructions of Damaratus and Xerxes!

A deposed king, Demaratus is also a traitor. Looking for revenge and power, he offers valuable intelligence to Xerxes, the oriental despot who is planning to conquer the freedom-loving city-states of Greece, including Sparta. But like Rabshakeh in Chapter one, he is also there to praise the Great King’s foes. Here are some of his lines:

“Spartans do not fight for a king or empire, my lord. They do not fight for riches or captured booty. They do not fight for greed or lust or power. They fight for something very different.” “They fight for each other. For their families. For the idea that men should live free.”

Cue a lot of sneering and insult from Xerxes, who is pretty much a carbon copy of Sennacherib. How can a collection of small and weak city-states stand up to the greatest empire the world had ever seen? Bah! And yet, chapter two is a lot better than one because this time the heroes have time on center stage as well. The first being, no real surprise here, Leonidas, the heroic commander of Thermopylae. And no real surprise here too, he’s hot,

“Tall. Dark-skinned. Dark-eyed. Thick arms. Leonidas was the epitome of everything a Spartan warrior was supposed to be. Strong as oak. Quick with a sword. Fearless. Intelligent.”

Leonidas copy

This historically accurate reconstruction of Leonidas is my offering to the gods Hormonio and Testosteronicus.

We also meet Themistocles, the brilliant admiral of the Athenian navy who probably did more than any other individual to rally and guide the Greeks to victory over the Persians. He’s the first military commander whose manly figure the authors do not drool over. This strikes me as an injustice, and one I feel compelled to rectify. So here goes!

The powerful muscles of his brawny arms gleamed in the early morning sun as Themistocles, proud admiral of the Athenian war fleet, leaned on a railing and surveyed the 300 ships under his command. His keen grey eyes, alight with the light of intelligence, shone piercingly from under his noble brow as his heart swelled with pride at the sight. But he was also troubled. As strong, and true, and brave as his sailors were, as committed to the cause of freedom and rights of free men as they were, would they be enough to stand against the might of the greatest empire the world had ever known? Turning from the railing, his tall, broad-shouldered figure cast an imposing shadow on the deck of his powerful trireme, pride of the Athenian fleet. Anacreon, the helmsman, watched with worshipful eyes as the admiral, more god than man, came up to him. Here was a captain: a real captain, and a real man. The kind of man who became a captain that a sailor would happily follow even into hell itself, thought the golden-haired youth. “When do we go against the Persians?” he asked, nervousness apparent in his ardent young voice. Themistocles looked deeply into the clear blue eyes of the brave youth, and they shared something that only men on the verge of risking death in the name of Liberty can share. Resting his strong, calloused hand on Anacreon’s smooth, well-muscled shoulder he said in a low voice that was charged with emotion, “We sail when the gods of Freedom command us to.”

Themistocles

A little drool for this historically accurate reconstruction of the hero of Salamis please!

Writing that was more fun than I want to admit, but back to the book! The major part of chapter two is devoted to explaining the tactical details of the four key battles at Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea, and here the authors are at their best. Clearly military history buffs themselves, their descriptions are clear, lively and fun to read. But the military details are beside the point. The failure of Persia to conquer the Greeks is important because:

“With its culture that valued freedom, individual liberty, and self-government, the Greek city-state was critical to the future development of the Western world. And although it is impossible to know how the history of Europe would have unfolded, this much is surely true: had the Greeks been defeated at Salamis – had their people been conquered by a power for whom the concepts of freedom and citizen did not even exist – history would have unfolded much differently.”

I’ll spend the rest of the review unpacking this statement, as it’s a good opportunity to revisit the standard view of a very important historical event.

Here Come The Spartans!

As the quote above says, the authors contend it was the city-state itself that gave birth to democracy. They continue, “Each city-state was small, locally governed, and in vibrant competition with its fellow Greek city-states…This facilitated innovation and creative genius.” They also quote The Greeks by J.H. Plumb, who explains that they were examples of “extreme chauvinism…highly individualistic and autonomous…all that had allowed the creation and growth of a free landowning citizenry like none other.”

One thing that strikes me is how much this sounds like conservative American doctrine: as in our pioneer tradition of individualism, states rights, and free-market capitalism. But is this answer sufficient? I won’t deny that the competing city-states were important to the vitality of the age, just look at the Italian Renaissance. But city-states were also a key to the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia – why didn’t they lead to democracy then? In fact, according to the authors, Mesopotamia led to the creation of “the East,” and “a static society with one goal: the maintenance of an absolute, theocratic state.”

Settling for the half-digested notion that Greek democracy was born from the “vibrant competition” of “locally governed” city-states lets the authors avoid two things: a meaningful search for the factors that inspired the Greeks to experiment with new forms of government, and a frank examination of the darker aspects of their society.

Take the Sparta of Leonidas. (Athens is mentioned briefly as the city-state with the most advanced democratic system, but Sparta is the real hero of this section.) The authors are good enough to note how extreme and unique it was, even among the other city-states. How it was a “strange mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.” (But they don’t discuss what that actually meant.) How it did not rely on citizen-solders, but on men taken from a “master race” of pure Spartan blood. They continue, “Sparta sustained this warrior class through the efforts of the other citizens who engaged in all those fields forbidden to the warriors.” This is as close as they come to admitting that Sparta was a mini-empire that used the conquered as slave labor. That omission leaves them free to admire and to sympathize with Sparta’s militarism.

And why wouldn’t they? Remember that drumbeat of doom that opens the chapter? It vibrates with a fear that mirrors what the Spartans must have felt. For this “master race” was a minority in their own home, and they never forgot that the people who worked their estates might rise up and slaughter them. So in their quest to create the perfect warrior they segregated suitable boys at age eight, and raised them in a highly regulated, communal army barrack, where “a “Spartan meal” [was] insufficient to satisfy hunger, so thievery was encouraged. But one should never be caught, so cleverness and cunning were developed.” – Vibrant competition saves the day again!

Having been honest enough to air some of the dirty laundry, the authors end on a high note with a peon to Spartan virtue: “Women were revered, good manners and order in families were demanded, strong marriages were admired.” Again, these sounds like planks in the Republican Party’s platform. The Democratic Party platform too, for that matter. And full disclosure here, as a liberal, I’m all for good manners and strong marriages. I’m also for “order” in the family, if that doesn’t mean beating the children whenever they question daddy, or denying them the freedom to choose their own mates.

As for “revering” women, that’s a funny way to put it, because what they had more of in Sparta than in the rest of Greece was freedom. The state’s obsession with training and maintaining a ferocious military force meant that men were away from home most of the time. It was the women who ran the households, and they moved about in public with a freedom that shocked foreigners. Wanting healthy mothers that bred healthy children, Spartan girls also had sports training in fields such as running, wrestling, discus and javelin throwing.

Which brings us to those “strong marriages,” the authors admire so much. Sparta’s focus on producing healthy children of the “master race” led to things like wife-sharing, where an older husband would allow a younger man to have sex with his wife, in the hopes this would produce a baby. Women were also free to divorce, and what’s more, they would keep their private wealth and, amazingly, their children.

For unlike most societies in recorded history, biological paternity, the identity of the father, didn’t matter so long as he was Spartan. Something else that was rare until modern times, the mothers had the rights of citizenship. These two radical innovations make Sparta, so awful in many ways, a fascinating place, and one that would have shocked and perplexed old school male chauvinists like the authors, had they ever visited.

There’s something else that would get their goat, pardon the phrase, and I’ll lead into it by noting an interesting marriage custom called “bride-capture.” A soldier who still lived in the military barracks could “secretly” get married by “kidnapping” a young woman – with her father’s permission, of course. They’d have a very brief, ur, honeymoon that night, but come sunrise, he was back in the barracks. What’s intriguing is that her friends would prepare her for the kidnapping by dressing her up in a man’s robe and sandals. And so we come to the shocking idea of man on man sex in the Spartan army. It happened. A lot. But you’d never know it to read this book – another sin of omission.

There Go The Persians!

I won’t argue against the main point of this chapter – that the Greeks had many amazing cultural achievements, and their victory against Persia preserved the idea of democratic government, which made the American, French, and other democratic revolutions possible. Still, there’s a note of ethnic chauvinism in the author’s celebration that makes me uncomfortable.

Several times throughout this chapter it is asserted that the words freedom and citizen did not even exist in Persian – or in any other Mediterranean language. This might be true, but I’ll have to do some due diligence before I accept this as fact. And that’s just the set up, here’s the pitch, “The Persians, for all their grandeur and might, left very little to the world of lasting value. Theirs was a static society with one goal: the maintenance of an absolute, theocratic state.”

And they go even further, by quoting Cowley’s “What If” book again, that if the Greeks had lost, “In place of Hellenic philosophy and science, there would have been only the subsidized arts of divination and astrology, which were the appendages of imperial or religious bureaucracies and not governed by unfettered rational inquiry… We would live under a much different tradition today – one where writers are under death sentences, women secluded and veiled, free speech curtailed, government in the hands of the autocrats extended family, universities mere centers of religious zealotry, and the thought police in our living rooms and bedrooms.”

Wow. This is just too black and white. The Greeks are too perfect, and the line drawn from the Persia of Xerxes to the Iran of the Ayatollah Khomeini is too straight and direct.

Starting with the Greeks, they too had secluded women (except in Sparta), and state subsidized divination. Free speech could be curtailed, and writers placed under a death sentence – the most infamous example is the trial and execution of Socrates for “refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state,” and for “corrupting the youth.” (This is a horrible blemish on the record of my beloved Athens.)

Which brings us to “religious zealotry.” It’s an odd charge to lay at the feet of the Persians, when the authors acknowledge the tolerance of Cyrus the Great, the founder of that empire. He let the people worship whichever god they chose, and today he is celebrated by some as a pioneer in human rights. Tucked away in chapter two is another important development – it was Cyrus who let the exiled Jews of Babylon return to Judah. I’m curious why the authors don’t celebrate this as one of their miracles. I’m also confused at the authors’ sudden distaste for theocracy, because in chapter one they noted with approval how King Hezekiah, “purged heresy from his people, bringing them back to their true religion.” And lets see, what’s the next chapter about? Oh yes, it’s all about the Emperor Constantine forcing Christianity on the Roman Empire. Hurray for freedom!

To be continued…

UNEXPLAINABLE MIRACLES OF FREEDOM – PART ONE!

A couple of days ago I innocently picked up a 2011 book entitled The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points that Saved the World. A quick look at the book flap told me the authors (two men who have the same last name! Chris and Ted Stewart) point to seven decisive moments in history that allowed both the idea and the fact of individual freedom to survive. Being an enthusiastic history buff who agrees that freedom is a good thing, I checked it out. But I quickly discovered this wasn’t real history, but a perplexing chimera with parts both light and dark. Starting from the unarguable position that individual freedom has been rare throughout history, and is something to cherish, it quickly devolves into propaganda for the worldview of the Fox News-Tea Party Axis.

I faced a fork in the road; a turning, if not a tipping, point. One choice was to return the book from whence it came. The other, read the damn thing and review it. I chose the latter, because this book is a good opportunity for me to confront the heart of darkness that troubles the American psyche on just who can take credit for American freedom. What fateful impact my choice will have on history, only time will tell!

Chapter One: Two Gods At War

One of these gods is Jehovah, of the ancient kingdom of Judah. The other is Anu, the Assyrian king of the gods. And this first key turning point in the history of human freedom is the Assyrians’ decision not to destroy the capital city of Jerusalem in about 700 BC. But I should mention that neither god makes an appearance in the story.

No, the two main characters in this chapter are the brutal Assyrian general Rabshakeh, and his stern master, King Sennacherib. Both of them star in a blood soaked epic of war, cruelty, and barbaric splendor straight out of Cecil B. DeMille. Rabshakeh is, and I quote from the book here:

“…a large man: tall, straight, strong as the ironwood trees in Mesopotamia, with a tightly curled beard and hair that hung below his shoulders, also tightly braided. He had a broad face and strong arms, with metal bands around his enormous biceps that were designed to show them off… and the general was as handsome as he was cruel. And he had not become captain of an army by being stupid, weak, or kind.”

Rabshakeh copy

An accurate historical reconstruction of what general Rabshakeh looked like.

Things stay hot and heavy as Rabshakeh sacks Judah’s second city, Lachish, complete with detailed and bloodcurdling descriptions of all the horrible things the Assyrians did to their defeated enemies. Then it’s off to the imperial splendor of the Assyrian capital Nineveh, where he is to report to his king. We are treated to a tour of the great city that climaxes at Sennacherib’s fabulous palace, which is described by the authors thus:

“1,650 feet long, almost 800 feet wide. More than 160 million bricks had been used in the palace foundation alone…Atop the deep foundations were eighty rooms, most of them guarded by magnificent rock figures, thirty-ton sculptures of winged lions and bulls with human heads. Throughout the mighty palace, the stone walls were inscribed with the stories of various military campaigns.”

25317_003_03

The splendor of Sennacherib’s mighty palace!

Proud and arrogant though he is, the general is troubled because he must report that Jerusalem is still holding out. It is lead by a charismatic young king named Hezekiah who sounds a bit like David Koresh of the Branch Davidians:

“He believes he has spent his entire reign preparing for this moment. He has purged heresy from his people, bringing them back to their true religion. He believes that he is called of their god, Jehovah. This has given him moral power, which brings him foolish courage.” (Here I would like to compliment the authors’ dramatic restraint, as they do not have a peal of thunder rumble mysteriously from a clear blue sky when Rabshakeh intones the name of the Hebrew god.)

This report does not go down well with Sennacherib, who flares his nostrils and barks:

“Have I ever undertaken to destroy a city, then changed my mind and let it be? Never have I, general. Not once! You understand? And I certainly don’t intend to start such a habit now, especially with such a weak and insolent people as the Jews. You will destroy them. You will kill them. You will scatter their people to the far corners of the world. Then the memory of their religion will die with them, the world forgetting the God of Israel before my son is old enough [to] sit upon this throne.”

OK, so after this tremendous buildup we’re ready to meet Hezekiah and his brave band of freedom loving, God-fearing warriors, right? Wrong. In fact, Hezekiah doesn’t even have a speaking part, he’s always off stage! We get no vivid evocation of Jerusalem. No colorful dramatization of its king and the fateful choices he must make, and no discussion of the role that freedom plays in the religion of the Hebrews. Instead, steam leaks out of the narrative as we follow a pointless history of the tawdry conflicts between the two Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah before the Assyrian invasion. This includes such useful information as:

“Both Judah and Israel possessed certain strengths. Judah controlled copper and iron resources. Israel had better rainfall and more fertile land, especially in the Jordan and Jezreel valleys.”

16 holyland-judah-lg

Copper mines and farmland where just two of the advantages enjoyed by either Israel or Judah.

What this has to do with the history of freedom is your guess as well as mine. When we finally return to the siege of Jerusalem, it’s over, and Rabshakeh is riding home in a mood of deep frustration because Sennacherib has called the whole thing off. Which is amazing after that big speech that the authors imagined he made in his palace, right? What could the reason be?

The authors have a theory, which they float in the title of a chapter heading, “The Sword of an Angel?” That sword would be an outbreak of plague, which the Bible says decimated the Assyrian forces as they laid siege to Jerusalem. Noting that the Assyrian records mention no such thing, the authors show some one-sided skepticism by explaining that Assyrian records are prejudiced in favor of the, ah, Assyrians. Good point!

The authors also note that many historians see evidence that Sennachirab struck a political deal with Hezekiah, but they dismiss this as unlikely – didn’t they proved in that dramatic palace scene that both rulers were religious fanatics? Then these two men, who would like to consider themselves historians, wrap up their brief for Jehovah with this astounding summation:

“Why Jerusalem and the culture of Judaism survived was because of either a mysterious plague or the softened heart of a brutal Assyrian king. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Both were miraculous and unexplainable events. And as we will explain in subsequent chapters, without the foundation of Christianity, the freedom and democracy that we enjoy in this golden age would not be possible today.” (Emphasis is mine.)

WTF!?! A plague in the ancient world is miraculous? A king changes strategy and this is “unexplainable?” The reason doesn’t matter??? All of this sorry nonsense is grim proof that they cannot prove their assertions, but refuse to admit it. As to their bold claim that freedom and democracy rest on a foundation of Christianity, we’ll get to that later. But before we leave Chapter One, I want to note another astounding thing: the authors approvingly quote a historian who contradicts their central thesis about this historical “tipping point.”

He is Robert Cowley, and the quote comes from a book he edited called What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. It regards the Babylonian captivity, which happened in 586 BC when the Babylonians conquered and destroyed Jerusalem. (No miraculous plague or unexplainable softening of a foreign king’s heart this time – which proves nothing!) Whereas the Assyrians uprooted and scattered everyone when they conquered Israel, the Babylonians left the farmers of Judah where they were, and only dragged off the city folk. What’s more, they let the Judeans retain their own culture while in captivity. In fact…

“(The exiles) flourished by the waters of Babylon, and reorganized their scriptures to create an unambiguously monotheistic, congregational religion, independent of place and emancipated from the rites of Solomon’s destroyed temple in Jerusalem.”

So while Judah’s narrow escape from the Assyrians is historically important, the actual turning point, the thing that ensured the survival of Jehovah in human memory is, ironically, the Babylonian captivity. Because it was there that the people of Judah created a new kind of religion; what we know today as Judaism. In so doing they made something that has endured for over 2000 years, which is extraordinary. But not a “miracle.”

Next up is Chapter Two: How The Greeks Saved The West!

Cranky Notes From A Space Holocaust

bombed caprica

Back in 2004 I was blown away by the amazingly good pilot of the re-vamped TV show, Battlestar Galactica. In addition to a strong cast, striking production design and good effects, it had the guts to make the Cylon villains a bunch of religious fanatics. I was all the more surprised because the trauma of 9/11 was still raw. But now I think it was that very catastrophe that enabled TV to deal with such a big taboo. Alas, the pilot was the high point.

First, full-disclosure here, I have only watched a sampling of the 4 seasons. I faithfully followed season one back in 2004, but the Cylons were so superior to the humans in technology, numbers, resources and all around savvy that I couldn’t take it anymore. Every episode showed our bunch of squabbling heroes out maneuvered to the point of extinction, only to bounce back with one “Hail Mary Pass” after another. I stopped being entertained, and started feeling manipulated, so I dropped out. Now, 10 years later, I’ve just sampled seasons 2 through 4 on Netflix, and despite some good stuff sprinkled throughout the series, my dissatisfactions have grown into disgust. Technically, not having seen all the episodes, I have no right to critique the series, but I’ll forge ahead because so much of the excruciatingly detailed coverage this series has gotten on the Internet avoids the central point: the Cylon’s use of God to justify a holocaust. There is a staggering amount of fan analysis out there, and most of it appears to be a happy obsession with the details of the show’s fictional history and the Cylon’s technology and biology. Concentrating on the trees, they miss the forest, so I’d like to write about the Culture War at the heart of Battlestar Galactica.

The original Battlestar Galactica from the 1970’s – which I remember seeing during the original broadcasts! – was a godawful, cheesy rip-off of Star Wars that gave us a Pearl Harbor style sneak attack in space. The villains were an alien robot race called Cylons, and the heroes were our space ancestors who lived on 12 planets with names like Caprica and Aquaria. The Cylons were the simplest cartoon villains imaginable, and their only goal in life was the complete conquest of the human race – just because! They got their big break with military information from a traitor, and the well-meaning foolishness of a president committed to appeasement with a ruthless enemy. The upshot was the destruction of the 12 worlds. Only one human warship, the Galactica, survived, and gathering a rag tag fleet that had escaped the Cylon attack they fled into space looking for a mythical “earth,” on which to settle. Apparently this story line wasn’t inspired by the Erich von Doniken bestseller “Chariots of the Gods,” but by executive producer Glen Larson’s Mormon faith! At any rate, the show tried, and succeeded, in achieving a simple good vs evil adventure feel. So much so that it made Flash Gordon look sophisticated.

Original Cylons

The original Cylons who, according to Commander Adama, “Hate us with every fiber of their being!”

Original gang

…And why shouldn’t they?

The 2004 reboot added moral complexity by making the Cylon robots creations of human technology. Used as slave labor they revolted, and after much bloody fighting won an armistice that allowed them to seek their own home out in space. That would seem to be a happy ending for the Cylons, but the reboot opens 40 years after the cease of hostilities, and they come back with a vengeance. Why? Well, it’s not any trickery or aggression from mankind, which is happily enjoying the good life on it’s 12 colonized worlds, where the problems of civil war, poverty and environmental degradation seem to have been solved. Mankind doesn’t know where the Cylons are, and it doesn’t care. But the Cylons care. Somewhere along the way they have picked up a messianic faith in a single God that runs against the polytheism of the 12 worlds, and “they have a plan” which requires that they wipe those 12 worlds out. And so we get a spectacular atomic holocaust that leaves billions of human beings dead.

Caprica go boom

Nuclear explosions go off all over the planet Caprica.

This time the fault does not lay with pro-appeasement politicians, but with a happy carelessness on everybody’s part. For 40 years there has been no apparent Cylon threat so – oh the fools! – the human race gets sloppy in its military preparedness. Not enough Cold War paranoia, in other words. That, and key inside info handed over by an unwitting traitor named Baltar, dooms the 12 Colonized worlds of mankind. (Baltar is a tricky, hollow, amoral self-promoter. He’s a good character, but I object to the way he’s used, and to the excessive fascination the script has for him. I’ll return to this point later.)

One of the strong points of the show is that it often highlights the rifts and tensions that erupt among the human survivors during their desperate flight, and so we don’t get a sentimental celebration of saintly orphans weathering a cruel storm. But we do get another kind of sentimentality in the show’s worship of the military. Speaking roles for civilians are few and far between, and that goes double for members of the press. Aggravating. But I’ll give the show credit for openly addressing the debate between a democratic government versus a military dictatorship. Well, kinda.  In the climax of season three the heroic Commander Adama stages a coup against President Roslin because he’s afraid she MIGHT might a bad choice in the future. A bold script choice that could have equaled the moment when Annakin Skywalker goes over to the Dark Side – only we are all saved a great deal of emotional trauma when a Cylon operative interrupts the coup by shooting and wounding Adama. I didn’t watch the following episodes, but by the middle of season four we are back to where we started with Adama in command of Galactica and Roslin still the president. (In the reboot, the Cylons have an elite corps that look just like people, and so can infiltrate human society.)

Not withstanding the stronger dramatic elements, I couldn’t watch the entire series because of the horrible amount of slow-moving soap opera that constantly engulfs the hot, hot-headed and horny crew of the Galactica. Particularly, the hot, hot-headed and horny “Viper” pilots. Any chance it gets, the camera is down in their mess area watching the well-muscled team lounge around in their tank tops as they drink, smoke, curse, argue, flirt, fight and fuck. (RE: fucking – it’s always with the wrong one! Or it’s with the right one – just before they die!) Nothing wrong with any of this, but we get waaay too much of it, and the script follows all of these shenanigans with the awed reverence of a dweeby freshman.

Lee Adama

The delicious Jamie Bamber plays hot Viper pilot Lee Adama.

Probably we are subjected to so much melodramatic filler because of the producers’ hope to keep the show running for as many seasons as possible. This is a particular curse of American television, unlike the BBC, which isn’t afraid of a limited series that gives us a strong story line, and then wraps everything up with gusto. It’s probably this aspect of American show business economics that is also responsible for a major felony in my book – and that’s the constant changing of the Cylon back story as the series progressed. I actually discovered this complaint on the blogs of some enthusiastic fans. So while season one tells us that the Cylons are a fairly recent creation of human technology, season four gives us some “special” Cylons who are thousands of years old. I don’t know the details, but it sounds like a big mess. A mess I don’t care to investigate.

Cylon war fleet

The very cool and creepy Cylon war fleet.

Cylon history is not the only thing that gets muddy, so does their reasoning. At first it is crystal clear; they are a bunch of vengeful zealots that, despite the fact they have won their independence, are bent on wiping out the “heathens” that created, and abused them. Talk of “God’s Plan” inspires them with holy fire, provides a rationale for murder, and hides from view their obsession and insecurity regarding mankind. A bad thing, right? Well…as the show progresses, it seems to drink the Cylon kool-aid, and “God’s Plan” becomes real. The series doesn’t go so far as to show a divine manifestation, a la God speaking to Moses in Cecil B. DeMill’s “The Ten Commandments. (Why not? Because it would look ridiculous? Because hearing God tell the Cylons to wipe out the 12 human worlds would make him look like a psycho?) What we get instead is a Nostradamus-like sage called Pithious who lived some 4,000 years before the Cylon attack. (Documented history is in short supply in the world of Galactica, so our high-tech, space-faring humans must rely on vague holy books that speak in riddles.) Happily, the vague riddles of Pithious all come true, thus “proving” that God (or the gods?) and his (their?) plans are real.

The conflict between a belief in one God and many gods is not adequately addressed – not in the episodes I watched, at any rate. Officially the humans worship the classical Greek gods Zeus, Apollo, Athena, etc. But most of the time they are actually modern-day agnostics or atheists. I never saw a scene where a human shows any emotional investment in any of the gods of the pantheon. I also never saw a debate between a devout polytheist and a devout monotheist. In fact, I never saw a Cylon suffer any intelligent push-back what-so-ever when it came to their endless talk about God and his plan . (If anyone who reads this blog knows of any such examples in the series, I’d be happy to know about it!) What passes for religious debate happens mostly between a sentient Cylon hologram and Baltar, the traitor. She’s a smarty-pants know it all with inside information, and he’s the sleazy a-religious operator who screwed the human race with his careless greed. And now, by default, he’s the voice of “reason.” Can you guess which side wins the day?

Number 6 & Baltar

Sexy Cylon “Number Six” teaches feckless Baltar about “God’s Plan.”

So anyways, jumping over many, many plot points, our human survivors and some Cylon “rebels” finally reach earth. (The Netflix episode guide tells me that late in the day the show fixed one of it’s major problems by giving the Cylons some arguments amongst themselves.) On earth they find tribes of Stone Age humans which they, amazingly, decide to join. For now all the humans, as well as the Cylons, want to be “agents of God’s plan.” So they all voluntarily agree to trash their space ships, to abandon cities, culture, and advanced medical care, all for the moral thrill of starting over with a “clean slate!” Wow. Where to begin? First, by observing that the enthusiastic cooperation of 100% of the survivors for following “God’s Plan” sounds like something you’d encounter in a Scientology compound, or in North Korea.

As shown in the pilot, the 12 Colonial Worlds look to be fabulous successes. If we here on earth reach anything close to them we will be very, very lucky. So where does the disgust with civilization come from? From the surprisingly dark and reactionary heart of “Battlestar Galactica,” that’s where. Disgust with cities, and the freedoms they give their inhabitants, has a long history with authoritarian types, and destroying them for the “good of mankind” is a wet dream that goes back to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, what we have here is a sci-fi retelling of that tale, done on a scale to surpass Noah’s Flood. The Cylons, devout agents of God, destroy the decadent and heathen cities of mankind with fire from the sky. And while this leads to 12 radiated planets and billions of deaths, that’s OK, because it enables the 38,000 survivors to discover the joys of Faith, and living in pious stone-age villages! So whatever the original intentions, “Battlestar Galactica” ends up celebrating the horror of 9/11 by giving us a happy ending that any Muslim Jihadist, or Moral Majority Christian Soldier, can approve of.

last-supper copy

It’s not a cult, it’s God’s Plan!

“Controlling Fandom”

controlling fandom

Earlier this month I visited the old homestead in Ohio, and during that time visited the nearby town of Yellow Springs, which I have started calling “The Hippie Village That Time Forgot.” It’s a delightful place, and they have a wonderful new and used book store called Dark Star.

I ended up buying a copy of “In Memory Yet Green,” Isaac Asimov’s entertaining 1979 autobiography. As a young man in 1938 Brooklyn, he started writing science-fiction stories and submitting them to magazines like Astounding Tales. He also entered the world of science-fiction fandom, which was then in its infancy. His hilarious, and tragic, description of what he found will resonate with anyone who’s ever done anything, either cultural or political, in a group:

“Though science-fiction clubs were small, they were contentious. The membership tended to consist of intelligent, articulate, argumentative, short-tempered, and opinionated young men (plus a few women) who got into tremendous power struggles.

You might wonder how power struggles can possibly arise in small clubs devoted to something as arcane as science fiction, and I wonder, too – but it happens. There are arguments over what happened to the thirty-five cents in the treasury, who is to run the fanzine, and other equally momentous problems. I believe there were even arguments as to how best to “control fandom” or, on a lesser scale, the world.”

Of course, now it is 2014, and the dream of “controlling fandom”  has migrated to the corporate boardroom. Progress!

 

SOMETHING FISHY IN BRUSSELS

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I just gorged on a 2011 political thriller from Belgian television called “Salamander”. It reminded me of  post-Watergate thrillers like “The Parallax View,” but with the added twist that many characters share an earnest fear that the country itself might disintegrate if too much dirty laundry becomes public. I found this kind of shocking, and then I remembered that Belgium is made up of different ethnic regions. I guess they still have nightmares that what is now happening in Iraq could happen there. To which I would like to give this comfort and reassurance – you don’t have anything to worry about unless the U.S. invades because we want to “liberate” you. So go ahead and get a good night’s sleep.

Back to the TV series: it begins when 66 safety deposit boxes belonging to members of Belgium’s power elite get robbed, but the bank that housed the boxes, and the victims themselves, seek to suppress any police investigation. This doesn’t stop our honest, bull-headed, and idealistic hero, a cop named Gerardi, from plowing on ahead, especially when several related murders happen. Who is behind the robbery, and why are they going after these 66 people? And what is the special connection, besides wealth and power, that binds them together? The mini-series, which has 12 episodes in all, does a good job of dramatizing the various power centers that get involved, and in showing how they react under stress. Our hero is soon targeted by powerful forces that want to stop him, but the script gives him some creditable allies – as he would need, not just to succeed, but to survive.

This is a handsome production, and I enjoyed the mise-en-scene, not having seen anything produced in Belgium before. Director Frank van Mechelen keeps the pace brisk, but not frantic, which helps pull the viewer into the story. The entire cast is solid. But I do have some complaints (I always do!) – The forces of evil in stories like this always take out a lot of sympathetic people once they “know too much,” but I think this plot device is overused in “Salamander.” Several characters who have their guard up prove to be frustratingly easy targets. This series is also “Old School” when it comes to gay characters. That means no speaking part for a gay character – unless you count that loathsome boy-rapist who works in the orphanage. (FYI – he is NOT a priest!) Gay sex does appear, when it rears its shocking head late in the series as part of a blackmail scheme. Shocking! Finally, while the fascist ideology of the villains is nicely sketched in, a deep unease with the public learning the truth hobbles the script’s commitment to democracy. This is perhaps why the press plays almost no role at all in “Salamander’s” long and drawn out battle for the future of an entire nation.

Still, worth a look!